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From AJR,   October/November 2004  issue

Energy Boost   

The Asbury Park Press plummeted after Gannett bought it from independent ownership. Then an aggressive editor named Skip Hidlay took over. Now the paper is known for its investigative edge, exemplified by its award-winning, 72-article series on how New Jersey legislators profit from their jobs.


By Mary Walton
Mary Walton (marywalton2000@yahoo.com) is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.     

On Sunday, September 21, 2003, the Asbury Park Press launched a compelling series titled "Profiting from Public Service: How Many N.J. Legislators Exploit the System." For eight days, the newspaper detailed abuses and provided examples that filled 38 pages with 72 stories. The series was dispatched over the Gannett wire to the chain's six other New Jersey papers, which had all contributed at least one reporter to a five-month effort spearheaded by the Press and captained by its energetic new executive editor, William C. Hidlay.

Among the findings: A third of the 120 Senate and Assembly members held at least one other public job in addition to their $49,000-a-year legislative posts, which allowed them to qualify for yearly state pensions as high as $100,000 when they retire. Those same lawmakers could legally skip work for days at a time for legislative business. No-bid state contracts to handle bond sales were routinely awarded by state agencies to politically connected law firms that "can then plow part of the proceeds back to the political parties through campaign contributions." Almost one in five lawmakers had at least one family member on the payroll. The Legislature's financial disclosure laws, among the weakest in the nation, allowed members "to hide their business clients," and there were virtually no laws to prevent ethics violations.

None of these practices was illegal. But they were appalling. The paper labeled it "legislated greed."

The Press followed up the series with eight days of impassioned editorials demanding major reforms. The New Jersey Legislature, the paper said, was "a cesspool of greedy, self-serving politicians," interested only "in getting rich off of your tax dollars and making sure you don't know it."

Timed to run before the November election and boosted by commentary on a Trenton radio station, the series unleashed a fresh tide of voter rage among already angry New Jerseyans. If you live in the Garden State, explains Joseph Farren, director of communications for the Senate Republicans, "You're paying the highest property taxes in the country, high auto insurance rates and then you find out the guys and gals you elected are taking your money. It was the last straw."

Depending on whom you count, five or six incumbent legislators went down on ethics issues, including an influential Republican state senator in the Press' home district, who was also the copresident of the Senate. A Republican Party poll in the spring showed that the issue ranked second only to property taxes among voter concerns.

During the 2004 journalism awards harvest, the series won two lucrative prizes, the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the $25,000 Farfel Prize for Excellence in Investigative Reporting from the Scripps Howard Foundation, plus the National Headliner Award for Public Service and the SPJ/SDX National Award for Public Service for papers with more than 100,000 circulation. In August the Associated Press Managing Editors named the series its winner for public service in the 50,000-plus-circulation category, trumping entries by the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times.

But the articles also prompted controversy in New Jersey political and journalistic circles, where people had been accustomed to a more restrained form of reporting. Some journalists complained that the Press had made extensive use of previously reported material, hyped the facts and taken too much credit for results. But Guy Baehr, associate director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers University, says that the critics miss the point. The Press coverage "was in the spirit of old newspaper crusades," he says. Yes, some of the material had appeared elsewhere in isolated stories. But what was new, he says, was "connecting the dots." Gannett had "changed the unwritten rules of how things get covered" in New Jersey.

For the Gannett chain, "Profiting" offered a model of how clustered newspapers working together can take on big projects. It also marked a turnaround for a newspaper that had gone downhill since its purchase by a chain known for journalism lite. In recent years the Asbury Park Press (circulation 168,198 daily, 228,844 Sunday) has been held up as a symbol of everything bad that happens when Gannett takes over.

In March 1999, an AJR story on how market research was shaping newspapers said that after buying the Press from family ownership in 1997, Gannett had "proceeded to change the paper's character from top to bottom" — and not in a good way. "The news report seems thinner, especially in the areas of business, politics and government. The paper seems far less inclined to ask probing questions." The newspaper had pared down its local coverage and filled the newshole with light features. Paid obits for people — and pets — provided a new revenue source. (Full disclosure: The writer of that article is my husband, AJR senior writer Charles Layton.)

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser also wrote about the post-Gannett makeover of the Press in "The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril," published in 2002. "Interest in investigative reporting waned," stories shrank, and so did the space for national and international news, they found.

New Jersey Monthly singled out Robert T. Collins, who is in charge of all of Gannett's New Jersey papers, as the villain in a saga of a scrappy newspaper tumbling in free fall. Ex-staffers — and there were plenty by 2001 when the magazine published "Gannett's Little General" — spoke of a management style that seemed designed to intimidate employees, scrimp on resources and maximize profits.

The following year Executive Editor W. Raymond Ollwerther, a holdover from the previous ownership, was transferred to a smaller Gannett paper. In replacing him, Collins told me, he had decided that "the first thing we needed to do was get back to the investigative reporting that this paper was known for. It seemed that we had lost our way."

Collins' "one and only choice" to succeed Ollwerther was William C. "Skip" Hidlay, whom he had hired once before, in 1996, as managing editor of the smaller Courier-Post in Camden, New Jersey. Collins had already interviewed five candidates. "In walks Skip as the sixth. He was loaded with energy, and it was obvious [at the Courier-Post] that he had a passion for this business. I hadn't seen anyone like Skip walk through the door." In Camden, Hidlay had risen to executive editor, presiding over vigorous probes into local crime and political corruption.

"Energy" is the word most used to describe Hidlay, 46, a compact, talkative Pennsylvanian with a contoured brush cut and a steady gaze. When Hidlay arrived, "You could feel his energy when he was coming down the hall," says Bob Cullinane, whom Hidlay pulled from the features section to write enterprise stories. "And he's been pretty successful in spreading that feeling."

Hidlay "was able to give direction that wasn't there under the previous editor," says Rick Hepp, who worked on the "Profiting" series before leaving to join the Star-Ledger of Newark. One big change was to establish a metro desk with editors overseeing stories before they go to the copy desk. Incredible as it sounds, says Assistant Metro Editor Bobbi Seidel, "the night desk was getting all the copy raw" before Hidlay arrived.

Says Features Editor Ronna Sutow, "Skip is very good at taking a look at what people are saying." For years, people had been complaining that they were "tired of the comics floating all over the paper," she says. Ditto for the TV page. Hidlay anchored both in a redesigned features section called "Jersey Life."

The paper continues to run monthly "Day in the Life of.." sections filled with short upbeat stories about local businesses and people. Known in-house as "Ditlos," the sections are dreaded by the staff and were heavily criticized in the Downie-Kaiser book. A pet photo competition in April drew 6,671 entries and the judging tied up 10 photographers. But since Hidlay came, there have been edgy enterprise series on Monmouth County's Latino community and the tensions provoked by an influx of Orthodox Jews in Lakewood, a one-time resort town. Hidlay gave Editorial Page Editor Randy Bergmann free rein to research and write an eight-part editorial page series, which ran last June, questioning the wisdom of a license extension for the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, the nation's oldest commercial nuclear reactor. Afterward, Gov. James E. McGreevey announced his opposition to the extension.

Meanwhile, county and municipal reporters have been scrutinizing expense accounts and salary records of elected officials, turning up evidence of bountiful dinners and questionable overtime, all paid for by taxpayers. Monmouth County Freeholder Amy H. Handlin, a reform-minded Republican, says she and her colleagues now operate under "continuous public scrutiny."

Eleanor Novek, a journalism professor at Monmouth University who uses the Press in her classes, says the paper is "on the rebound" from the dark days following its sale to Gannett. "I think they're doing a really good job at explaining state laws and policies to their readers. It's a hard job, and they're doing it in a way that explains to people why they should care." But some of the fluff distresses her, especially articles the paper solicits from readers from time to time.

Hidlay (pronounced Hide-lee), known to all by his nickname, "Skip," grew up in Bloomsburg, a university town in north-central Pennsylvania, the eldest of three sons in a Republican, Presbyterian, church-going family. After graduating from Syracuse University with a journalism degree, Hidlay joined the Berwick Enterprise (since merged with the Bloomsburg Press to form the Press-Enterprise), his hometown's afternoon paper, where he had been a summer intern during college. He was assigned to cover the local power company's application for a license to construct a nuclear power plant.

During a hearing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company confirmed that it had evacuation plans, an issue of paramount importance in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. It was the first Hidlay had heard about it. Squeezing interviews in between cop calls and night meetings, he found that each of the 27 towns in the evacuation area had been given a standardized form to fill out with the names of who would do what in the event of an evacuation.

Hidlay called every person listed on the forms and found that the majority didn't know they had the jobs. Of those who did, most said they wouldn't do them. He discovered that a boy of 13, who lived with his widowed mother, was listed as a radiological monitor technician. "I said, 'Well, the question is, would you do the job if there were an accident at the plant?' He said, 'Well, I don't know. I might be in school.'" The story won an award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

After stints at North Carolina's Fayetteville Times and Charlotte Observer, Hidlay joined the Associated Press in 1986, hoping eventually to work overseas. A growing family made that difficult, and he opted instead for management. Today he and his wife, Valerie, have five children, ranging in age from 8 to 23.

Hidlay had worked his way up through jobs in Maine and Connecticut to the post of Florida news editor when he decided to return to newspapers to focus on enterprise and investigative stories. He heard that Gannett was receptive to people with wire service experience and applied for a job at the Courier-Post.

While he was working in Camden in 2000, Hidlay says, Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, made a casual remark during an editorial board meeting that would prove to be the genesis of the "Profiting" series. At the time, the Courier-Post was opposing a costly Delaware River dredging project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hidlay couldn't understand the widespread support for what the paper had concluded was an environmentally questionable boondoggle. "What this is really all about is what I call the use of government as a rainmaker," the congressman said.

"What do you mean?" Hidlay asked.

Andrews replied along these lines: All the work created by the project, all the money flowing into so many pockets, it's going to be recycled into campaign contributions. Unions are going to get a big piece of it, lawyers are going to get a big piece of it.

In other words, the contracts would go to the people who gave money to the politicians who lobbied for the project, a practice known as "pay-to-play."

Cut to February 2003. A young Asbury Park Press reporter named James Quirk is looking into allegations that the mayor of the township he covers has questionable ties to a major developer. Hidlay teams him with a more experienced reporter, James Prado Roberts. The trail leads to the town's municipal attorney, John O. Bennett III, a state senator from Monmouth County, who is also the copresident of the evenly divided Senate. He is the most powerful elected Republican in the state. On February 9, the Press explores ties among the mayor, the developer and the state senator in page-one stories.

Bennett says he welcomes an investigation. Big mistake. Not only do the feds jump in, but the Press' Todd Bates totes a portable copier to the township office, and he and his colleagues copy all of Bennett's records. "I think I've found something," he tells Hidlay several weeks later. The records show that Bennett double billed the township for $8,130.

As it turned out, that wasn't all. Bennett, who was an attorney for several other towns, failed to list all his jobs on financial disclosure forms. Bates also discovered that Bennett had been paying another lawyer $60 an hour to rewrite the township's municipal code, a job for which Bennett earned $150 or $160 an hour. Bates learned by calling around that other townships had paid a fraction of what Bennett received for the same kind of work. Both Bennett's mother and mother-in-law were on his state payroll.

Bennett's conduct reminded Hidlay of the government-as-rainmaker phenomenon. "And it hit me, the entire state Legislature's up for election." He remembered that the Philadelphia Inquirer once investigated the Pennsylvania state Legislature in a series called "Out of Control." "And I thought, 'Wow, what if we investigated the entire state Legislature to see if they're doing the same thing the Senate president is doing.'"

Hidlay broached the idea to Investigations Editor Paul D'Ambrosio, 44, who had worked at the Press since graduating from George Washington University in 1981. An early practitioner of computer-assisted reporting, he was the database editor for the Press' prizewinning "House of Cards," an investigation of a multimillion-dollar land scam that led to an FBI probe and a continuing stream of indictments. That was big, but this was bigger.

In 1999, D'Ambrosio planned an investigation of the state's weak public-disclosure law that would, as it happened, lay the groundwork in several ways for "Profiting from Public Service." Reporters from Gannett's New Jersey papers had attempted with limited success to pry budgets, expense vouchers, salary information and crime reports from 600 towns, police stations and school boards. Afterward Gannett took the lead in pressing for a new Open Public Records Act that took effect in July 2002. The law made reams of useful information available. And the project gave D'Ambrosio experience in supervising a multi-newspaper team.

For the "Profiting" series, each of the Gannett papers sent an editor and at least one reporter to hammer out guidelines at a meeting chaired by Publisher Collins. When it came time to divvy up prize money, 44 reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists would share the proceeds. But the bulk of the reporting was carried out by a half dozen reporters at the Press.

After the meeting D'Ambrosio developed a story budget and spent close to a month obtaining and overseeing the creation of six databases. For one, the Press obtained 500,000 campaign contributor records from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Gannett purchased another from the state pension board that spelled out the work histories of legislators with government jobs and became the basis for pieces on dual office holding and pension padding. A compilation of legislative staff and salaries was explored for nepotism. A fourth database contained profiles of legislators assembled from published bios. The paper also negotiated with a company that tracked public bond sales for a database of the $54 billion borrowed through the 3,000 bonds New Jersey had issued in the preceding five years. That gave Gannett the names of law firms that profited from bond sales. Meanwhile, two reporters carrying a gym bag with a Brother DCP-1000 portable copier traveled to Trenton, the state capital. There they copied 1,500 pages of financial disclosure records, which were subsequently incorporated into a database and posted on the Web. CDs containing the databases went out to all the team members. Afterward, D'Ambrosio held a coaching session at each paper on how to use them.

In reviewing the financial information, Press reporter Jason Method noticed that Republican State Sen. Robert W. Singer was a board member of two Canadian technology firms; he had received a $50,000 consulting contract from one and stock from a second. The Canada connection struck Method as curious for a New Jersey legislator. He checked the companies' filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and discovered a link to the son of a developer who had the contract for a controversial office park that the senator had backed in his position as a township committeeman. Protesting that "I'm not a wealthy man," Singer said he saw nothing wrong with the arrangement. A story on the deal led the third part of the series.

By one count, more than 50 of the state's legislators were criticized in one way or another. The series was scrupulously nonpartisan, meaning that each time a Republican was slammed, so too was a Democrat. Already in a fight for his political life against a Democrat who was using the Press' revelations as ammunition, John Bennett was the subject of damaging new disclosures. Six weeks later he was history.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a Camden Democrat, was singled out for sponsoring a bill that financially benefited his old political mentor, former Gov. James Florio. An editorial called Roberts "a poster child for legislators who talk out of both sides of their mouths." Stung by the attack, the assemblyman, a tall, mannerly businessman, said he and Hidlay had enjoyed "a very fine professional relationship" when Hidlay was editor of the Courier-Post. He concluded that "Skip's not calling the shots, the publisher is."

After the election, the Republicans, who were now the minority in both houses, elected a Senate leader with a squeaky-clean reputation. The Democrats drafted a 25-point ethics proposal; the Republicans said it didn't go far enough, particularly on pay-to-play; and Democratic Gov. McGreevey agreed with them. The controversy over pay-to-play delighted Harry S. Pozycki, chairman of Common Cause New Jersey, which had made the practice its cause célèbre for the past 10 years. He says nothing less than Gannett's persistent coverage of the issue would have breathed new life into the campaign to ban it.

By March, D'Ambrosio reported that "good government reforms appear to be breaking out across New Jersey, a state considered one of the most corrupt in the nation." Three ethics bills had been passed and four dozen more were pending. Nearly every Press story on these reforms contained boilerplate language crediting the "Profiting" series.

In June, just before the Legislature was scheduled to vote on a comprehensive ethics bill, the Press launched a three-part series to build support for pay-to-play reform. Among its findings: Companies and law firms gave more than three times more money to political committees than did individual contributors. Still, even though the Legislature's approval of the bill brought to 23 the number of reforms enacted on its 25-point agenda, the pay-to-play measure contained substantial loopholes. McGreevey signed it nevertheless.

The series rocked other newspapers. After "Profiting from Public Service" ran, James Willse, editor of the rival Star-Ledger, asked one of his editors to inventory its major findings. "I wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything." Of 60 points, Willse says, 30 had been covered previously in the Star-Ledger, 20 were new and 10 were open to interpretation. Says Willse, "I give them [Gannett] a lot of credit for pulling together material old and new and presenting it in a very forceful way... I don't begrudge them a single prize."

Other journalists did. Either fearful that their comments would sound like sour grapes or because their paper told them not to comment, they would not talk for attribution, but they expressed a common viewpoint. Gannett "really did a good job of public service," says one, but because so much of the material was not original, "let's not pretend it was investigative journalism."

Noting that important ethics reforms had nearly passed in 2003, the critics also say the Press made inflated claims about results. This point is particularly relevant to the Selden Ring award, which requires that winners point to a concrete outcome stemming from the work. In its nomination letter to USC Annenberg, the Press said that ethics were a factor in the defeat of five New Jersey legislators. Dissenters say that may be true, but only three of the losses can be attributed to Gannett.

Most frequently cited as an example of Gannett's use of previously published material is a story written by Star-Ledger Statehouse reporter Dunstan McNichol questioning the activities of Wayne R. Bryant, an entrenched Democratic state senator from Camden. The "Profiting" series too had a long story on Bryant that covered some of the same ground. In every case, however, where information surfaced first in the Star-Ledger, it appeared to have been re-reported and deepened by Gannett.

McNichol is not complaining. "Not all my stuff was completely new," he says — some had originally appeared in the Courier-Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Once stuff is published, it's everybody's stuff," he adds. His objection to the series, he says, is its zealous tone. "The facts should speak for themselves, and you don't need to provide editorial context."

John Bennett, 56, is still an attorney for several municipalities, and the Press still covers him. There was a story when he filed for his $90,000-plus pension and another when he registered as a lobbyist. His office, where dozens of little elephants parade across bookshelves and along the windowsill, is in a leafy suburban office park not far from the newspaper.

The deposed state senator has the bewildered air of a spaniel mauled by a pit bull. He clearly hasn't recovered from the relentless barrage of headlines that, by his count, landed him on page one "19 times in three months." In better days, he says, the Press treated him with respect, endorsing his bids for reelection. Then came the double-billing story and headlines so large readers "would have thought I'd been indicted for murder or worse. It was bigger than any war declared, war ended, President Kennedy killed."

He steadfastly maintains that the double billing was a clerical error, and no one I talked to in Trenton believes otherwise, although the FBI has yet to release the results of an investigation. Protests Bennett, "I did not risk two careers and $500,000 in money for an $8,000 bill." The $500,000 is a measure, he says, of his lost income.

Where do you go when the only newspaper in town is against you? Bennett asks rhetorically. The Press published his protests but countered them in editorials. He consulted a leading libel attorney who told him he didn't have a case. He talked with a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who agreed to do an investigation — for a price. "I don't quite understand how to deal with a newspaper."

Bennett wheels around to his computer and calls up the popular PoliticsNJ Web site, where there is an item about a Monmouth County freeholder whose campaign committee expenditures and government expenses for meals and travel have recently been exposed by the Press. The item says the freeholder has been "john bennetted." "I'm a verb," Bennett says, amused. What does the verb mean to him? he is asked.

It means, he answers, "making big deals out of little deals."

After more than two years as editor, Skip Hidlay occupies an office that still looks as if he is moving in. Books and papers are stacked haphazardly rather than lined up on sparsely filled bookshelves behind his desk. There are scattered piles of newspapers. Hanging on the wall are a dozen framed front pages featuring the big headlines that characterize the Press' investigative stories, including the one that so distressed John Bennett.

Although the series did not accomplish all that it set out to do, notably in the area of pay-to-play reform, what the Legislature enacted amounted to the "biggest ethics reform in New Jersey since Watergate," Hidlay says. "That alone is satisfying." Hinting of investigations to come, he says, "I don't think the ethics reform issue is done." The Press will track the impact of pay-to-play reform when it takes effect in 2006, he says. More immediately, a Gannett investigation into state expenditures is in the works.

In an era of corporate journalism, he says, "one of the really groundbreaking things about this is that it shows that you can combine forces on an investigative project basis and do work that is at the quality that the nation's largest, most highly regarded newspapers do. We demonstrated, you know, that our work is competitive with the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer."